Brazilian key ignites Mahindra engine

S.R. SURYANARAYAN

United they stand: Team Mahindra United celebrates after winning the 27th Federation Cup in Goa.-R.RAGU

ONE minute was all what was left for the lottery of the penalty shootout to be drawn. The 35,000 capacity crowd in the floodlit Nehru Stadium was bracing up for what, to critics, is an unsatisfactory way of resolving a deadlock, but to fans is the most thrilling end to any encounter. Then came the bolt from the blue, as far as the partisan supporters of Sporting Clube de Goa were concerned.

Jose Ramirez Barreto, the true-blue Brazilian in the Mahindra United ranks, conjured up the magic to break the 1-1 deadlock with the gentlest of lobs. The silence in the ground was deafening, as Mahindra United, Mumbai, realised its goal of winning the title in the Alchemist-27th Federation Cup Football tournament in Margao.

Barreto, who is believed to have had the benefit of training under World Cup winning coach Felipe Scolari, has had tumultuous times in India. Initially, while with Mohun Bagan, financial and other non-footballing matters had soured his relations with the club and Barreto headed for Malaysia and expectedly became a hero there. After a good season there, it was Mahindra's turn to snap up the Brazilian, possibly spending a fortune on him and rightly so. Keeping in mind India's mediocre football standards, few foreign players have been as consistent as Barreto with their touch.

Dudu Omagbemi of Sporting Club de Goa (with raised hands as Mahindra United's Mahesh Gawli gets the better of him) was a hit in the tournament along with striking partner Chidi, also from Nigeria.-R.RAGU

Talking of touch, Barreto is a believer in economy of movements. Quick to release the ball, the Brazilian is never easy to be marked. And he is clever enough to remain hidden behind defenders and size up his target accurately. The winning goal, which brought Mahindra its second Federation Cup title in three years, was a case in point. In a surcharged atmosphere where players of both the teams seemed to run out of ideas, and when they were all weary after the gruelling near two-hour action, it required calmness of mind and dexterity of feet to capitalise on an opportunity created. Barreto showed these attributes to score and finish with six goals in the tournament to get the Alchemist-Golden Boot award of Rs one lakh.

The final was the second time that Sporting — easily one of Goa's most popular club teams currently — had lost a crucial game to the same opponent. The last occasion was in the previous NFL where a win would have given the Goan side its maiden title but it lost and finished runner-up. The key to Sporting's success thus far has been the two-pronged attack of Chidi and Dudu, the two Nigerians who complement each other so well that it is a familiar sight these days when one scores to see the other running to him and the two clinging to each other and making their ceremonial run to the touchline.

Sporting also has a collection of impressive Indian talent such as Bibiano Fernandes, Joseph Pereira, Felip Gomes and Nicolau Borges, who have all shown the ability to combine well with the Nigerians. But as coach Clifford Chukwama, an African and a former player of merit, was to lament, "the team lacked the maturity to play the final moments". Having edged out Salgaocar in the tie-breaker in the semifinal, Sporting had dreamt of conquering the summit.

Jose Barreto of Mahindra United (in action against Churchill Brothers in the semifinal) enchanted Goa with his skills and opportunism to finish as the top scorer of the tournament.-R.RAGU

Mahindra must have been doubly happy that its high investment — reportedly in the range of Rs. three crores — to build the team has paid dividends. These are still early days in the season and there will be more gains for the club. Some of the best Indian talents figure in the side — Surkumar Singh, Deepak Mondal, N. S. Manju, S. Venkatesh (who was adjudged the Cristiano Junior Player of the Tournament in memory of the late Dempo star), Steven Dias, Ajayan and Surajit Bose. Of course, coach Derrick Pereira utilised the riches in the best way but things could still have gone against them if Sporting had built on their equaliser, which came as a result of a dicey penalty awarded by FIFA referee Rizwan ul Haq.

Had it not been for Barreto's late strike, the tie-breaker could have gone either way. If in doubt, check with Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal, who crashed out of the tournament in tie-breakers. The exits of the two Kolkata giants as also that of the defending champion, Dempo Goa, were the upsets of the tournament. Dempo succumbed to the all-desi HAL (SBT was the only other team without foreign imports) and set the tone for the shape of things to come for the Kolkata heavyweights. Mohun Bagan lost out to Vasco, Goa, and East Bengal to Churchill Brothers. The Goan teams thus had a field day and by the halfway stage it was clear at least one Goan team would feature in the final.

There are positives from this tournament, namely the assured display of some of the known names in Indian football and some fresh ones. However, there is still enough to worry. The excitement of goals and wins has submerged the imbalance in the team composition of most clubs in the matter of low representation of Indian strikers. With most teams having a Nigerian or a Brazilian to exhibit the skills in the box or close range, the proficiency of an Indian can never be gauged in the premier knockout tournament of the country. The lack of strength and depth in strikers is the area that has troubled national coach Syed Nayeemuddin most. The coach, who believes that "Indians need exposure in order to not get exposed", sat through the tournament to make a list of probables for the country's international assignments ahead, in particular the SAFF Cup tourney in Karachi in December.

Glamour game: Zee Sports has changed the face of Indian football with its coverage, part of which was the performance by cheerleaders called Zeebras. Here they whip up the passion during the match for the third place between Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar.-AP

The clubs, however, will not be unduly worried. The AIFF will have to think of ways to correct this trend if Indian football is to turn the corner. One solution, as a wag put it, is to check if it is easier to get these foreign players Indian citizenship! Yet another worry area was the refereeing. Often, poor decisions spoil good matches. Earlier these were either glossed over or debated endlessly in the media with nothing else happening. However, with Asian Football Confederation now committed to the career development of referees from the continent and even categorising its best officials as `elite', the tournament committee, with AIFF's approval, took the unprecedented step of removing FIFA Referee Arjunan from the panel after shortcomings were found in his supervision.

Arjunan red-carded Fransa Pax's goalkeeper Mark Mascarenhas though the key culprit, Mohammedan Sporting's Suleh Musah, went unpunished. Fransa won that match but without Mark, Sporting Clube exploited the weakness to the hilt in the quarterfinal.

The committee used video clippings in the wake of protest by Fransa. Arjunan's case may not be an isolated one but in taking action against him the AIFF has given enough indication that referees supervising in major Indian tournaments will have to tighten up. Sometimes, as it happened in the final with Rizwan ul Haq, a referee can get cover for a poor decision with the affected side eventually triumphing. Haq, a FIFA referee, gave a `penalty' against Mahindra United when defender Mahesh Gawli tackled Dudu cleanly but the Nigerian succeeded in giving the impression of being tripped. It must be said to Rizwan's credit that the naked eye can be fooled by the split-second action but not the TV cameras and replays.

Zee Sports has taken its first big step into the Indian sporting scene with its live football telecasts. The enthusiasm was unmistakable — dance by the cheerleaders or the `Zeebra' girls, band, music and daily quota of crackers not to mention roping in football-loving lady anchor Mayanti Langer to do a Mandira Bedi act. The channel also brought in two commentators from England, another indication that the craze for `foreign' players does not limit to Indian football clubs alone.

The results

Final: Mahindra United Mumbai 2 (Barreto 37' 119') bt. Sporting Clube de Goa 1 (Dudu, pen 58'); Third place: Churchill Brothers bt. Salgaocar 5-0; Man of the final: Sandeep Nandi (Mahindra United); Alchemist-Golden Boot award: Jose Ramirez Barreto (Mahindra); Cristiano Junior Best Player of the tournament: S. Venkatesh (Mahindra); Fairplay: Mahindra United.